Leadership Lessons from Mr. Lincoln

Like many, I have been awaiting the release of Steve Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, which focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to secure the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution while also giving us insight into the character and leadership skills of Lincoln.  I found the movie riveting in its stagecraft and development of characters.  It is based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 award winning book, Team of Rivals, which has been re-released to coincide with the release of the movie.  Inc. magazine ranks Team of Rivals #4 on it’s Top 12 leadership books of all time.

In the last seven years Kearns Goodwin has often been asked in interviews about the leadership qualities she saw in Lincoln, qualities that are timeless and would apply to leaders in all kinds of situations.  Here is a sampling of her observations.


From an interview with the Harvard Business Review

HBR:  What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a successful leader?

DKG: “I can’t emphasize strongly enough the fact that you’ve got to surround yourself with people who can argue with you and question your assumptions. It particularly helps if you can bring in people whose temperaments differ from your own.

You also have to be able to figure out how to share credit for your success with your inner team so that they feel a part of a mission. Basically, you want to create a reservoir of good feeling, and that involves not only acknowledging your errors but even shouldering the blame for the failures of some of your subordinates. Again and again, Lincoln took responsibility for what he did, and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others, and so people became very loyal to him.

History also shows that it’s essential to know how to connect to the larger public…in Lincoln’s case, through speeches that were filled with such poetry and clarity that people felt they were watching him think and that he was telling them the truth.

I would add here that one more success factor is key for great leadership, be it in business or politics, and it’s one that’s usually overlooked. As a leader you need to know how to relax so that you can replenish your energies for the struggles facing you tomorrow. Lincoln went to the theater about a hundred times while he was in Washington.

What Lincoln had, it seems to me, was an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence. He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes to a remarkable degree. He was careful to put past hurts behind him and never allowed wounds to fester.”

Source: Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln: A Conversation with Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Harvard Business Review Reprint R0904C.

From a Forbes interview

“Lincoln had a quiet self confidence that allowed him to surround himself by people better known than he was. He knew they’d argue and debate with him. In order to strengthen his own leadership he knew that if he could have that leadership in his own political family, it would make him a better leader. That’s relevant for leaders in business or anywhere.

Lincoln also had the ability to absorb and listen well to what people were feeling and thinking. He could see both sides of the issue.”

When Lincoln met someone, “he wasn’t just impressing the person at the moment, he was really understanding. He was a northerner but he understood what the south was feeling. He was able to work that into his speeches.”

“Lincoln had an enormous array of emotional strength that was more important than his résumé. He had the ability to acknowledge his errors, learn from mistakes and shoulder the responsibility for the failure of others. If you’re looking to evaluate talent as a leader some of those emotional strengths are equally important to actual success.”

Source:  Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons, Forbes

From an interview with the National Council, a behavioral health advocacy group

NC: How would you describe Abraham Lincoln as a leader? Does his leadership style fit into the categories that we are so familiar with today?

DKG:  “The great strengths of Lincoln’s leadership style lay in his unparalleled array of emotional strengths, which allowed him to deal with his colleagues almost without exception with abiding respect and fair-mindedness. He was able to share credit for success, take responsibility for failure, acknowledge his mistakes, learn from past errors, put grudges behind him, and rise above petty grievances better than any leader I have studied.”

NC:  What can we learn from Lincoln about the importance of purpose?

DKG: “All his life Lincoln seemed motivated by an ambition much larger than simply for office or power or celebrity. He wanted, as he often said, to leave the world a little better place for his having lived in it, to accomplish something worthy enough so that his story could be told after he died.

Having such a large goal as his lodestar meant that he could endure failure and frustration along the way guided by this principled ambition.”

Source: The National Council for Community & Behavioral Health

Goodwin spoke at a TED conference and outlined ten leadership characteristics of Lincoln. It’s worth the time to watch the video

The ability to motivate oneself in the face of adversity

Learn from one’s failures

Share credit with others

Take responsibility and shoulder blame

Be aware  of  one’s weaknesses

Control your emotions, especially anger

Find ways to relax and regain a sense of humor

Spend time with the people you lead, especially those in need

Remain true to your goals

Communicate your ideas with eloquence

Watch Doris Kearns Goodwin speak about Lincoln.  This website has 14 video clips of varying length in which she discusses Lincoln, his character and leadership.

Finally, in Fast Company, Mark Crowley draws these lessons from Team of Rivals.

“The profound lesson to be drawn from this book is that Lincoln led brilliantly, not just from his mind, but also his heart. General William Tecumseh Sherman called it his ‘greatness and goodness.’

Molded By Loss

Born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, Lincoln grew up in abject poverty. His father never learned to read or write, working as a hired hand with little ambition. While his bright, caring mother taught him to read and spell, she died when he was just nine. While still a boy, he witnessed the death of his infant younger brother and, later, his beloved older sister.  According to Kearns Goodwin, throughout his entire adult life, “Lincoln neither romanticized nor sentimentalized the difficult circumstances of his childhood.” Instead, his acutely painful experiences became the source of life-long compassion and concern for others.

Indomitable Sense Of Purpose

From life hardships, Lincoln developed a deep self-confidence he fully leveraged throughout his entire adult life. But perhaps his greatest inspiration came from an intransigent belief that he had a purpose to fulfill.  Apparently at a very early age, Lincoln set his sights on “engraving his name in history.” “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition,” he wrote. “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” Lincoln was certain his purpose was to preserve the greatest democracy the world had ever known, and to ensure its “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“Malice Toward None; Charity For All”

Adjectives routinely used to describe President Lincoln include “compassionate” “kindhearted” and “immodest.” Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, once remarked, “No man clothed with such vast power ever wielded it more tenderly and forbearingly.”

According to Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln’s prodigious influence on friends and foes alike was due to his “extraordinary empathy – the ability to put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling and to understand their motives and desires.”

A Thoughtful Communicator

In Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and “Second Inaugural Address,” we’re given stunning examples of the man’s brilliance as a thinker. But, just as important, Lincoln was a masterful writer and speaker who consistently moved people through his humor and kind personal presence.

“His speaking went to the heart because it came from the heart,” reporter Horace White wrote. “I have heard celebrated orators who could start thunders of applause without changing a man’s opinion. Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence…produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself.”

Lincoln also had a wonderful gift for telling stories and, intentionally used his quick and benign wit to soften wounded feelings and dispel anxieties. He also was not afraid to display his own humanness. On more than one occasion, he traveled long distances to visit weary troops on the battlefield. Simply by demonstrating to them that their work mattered to him, he earned their unmitigated support.”

Source:  The Leadership Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, Fast Company, November 8, 2012.

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